Creation of the play
It seems likely that Shakespeare wrote Richard III in about 1591. The play is closely related to and concludes his trilogy on Henry VI, which he probably began in about 1590. It influenced Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second, which can be dated to 1592 at the latest.
The first performance of Richard III was perhaps given late in 1591 by the conglomerate of the Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men (although there is no certain evidence to link Shakespeare to this company). The play was popular and received regular performances by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men into the 1600s, when it would have been performed at the Globe. It was given at court as late as 16 November 1633, the only early performance of which there is a record, and may well have remained in the repertory of the King’s Men until the theatres closed in 1642. By the early 1600s, Richard Burbage was playing the title role in Richard III.
Publication in quarto and folio
Richard III appeared in 10 editions before 1642.
The bookseller Andrew Wise paid the Stationers’ Company for a licence to print Richard III on 20 October 1597. The first quarto was printed for Wise shortly afterwards, by the printers Valentine Simmes and Peter Short. The popularity of the play is shown by the frequency of new editions.
The second quarto appeared in 1598, and the third in 1602, both printed for Wise by Thomas Creede. On 25 June 1603, Wise transferred his copyright in Richard III to the bookseller Mathew Law. The fourth quarto of 1605 and the fifth of 1612 were both printed for Law by Creede. A sixth quarto was printed for Law by Thomas Purfoot in 1622. After the publication of the first folio, a seventh quarto appeared in 1629, printed for Law by John Norton. Norton’s name appeared alone in the imprint to the eighth quarto of 1634.
British Library copies of Richard III contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.
Several sources were particularly important for the creation of Richard III.
Story of the play
The action of Richard III begins after Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s secret murder of King Henry VI. His eldest brother is now king, as Edward IV.
(Act 1) Richard has designs on the throne, and has plotted against his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, who is taken to imprisonment in the Tower where Gloucester later has him murdered. In the meantime, Richard woos and wins the Lady Anne, daughter-in-law of the dead King Henry.
(Act 2) Edward IV dies, leaving two young sons, Edward, Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. Richard, with Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham, departs to fetch the Prince of Wales from Ludlow.
(Act 3) Richard, as Lord Protector, lodges Prince Edward and his brother the Duke of York in the Tower. Richard has Hastings executed when he opposes his bid for the crown. With the support of Buckingham, Richard has himself proclaimed king.
(Act 4) Richard has been crowned king. Buckingham refuses to help him deal with the young princes in the Tower, but Richard arranges their murder. His wife Anne has died, and Richard wants to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. When he refuses Buckingham the promised earldom of Hereford, Buckingham flees the court to join the growing opposition. He is subsequently captured.
(Act 5) Buckingham is led off to execution. The Earl of Richmond gathers his forces against Richard. The night before the opposing armies meet in battle, King Richard is visited by the ghosts of his many victims, including Henry VI, the Duke of Clarence, the two young princes, and his wife Lady Anne. Richard is killed on Bosworth Field and Richmond proclaimed king. He announces his intention of marrying Elizabeth of York, and so ending the civil wars between York and Lancaster.
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